Camel Racing in Kenya

The frontier town of Maralal is the administrative headquarters of the Samburu people whose district stretches as far as Lake Turkana in the north. Maralal is a staging post on the dusty, rough, red-earthed rough road north to the eastern shore of the lake. Maralal boasts a tiny gem of a game sanctuary actually within the township’s legal bounderies. At a place called Losiolo the valley wall is sheer and vast and almost overwhelming. The panorama is totally breathtaking. In all directions from Maralal is the majestic scenery whose grandeur is enhanced by its consort with wildlife and by the calm dignity of the herdsman and their herds. The Samburu who inhabit this vast and beautiful landscape are close relatives of the Maasai.

On the Cedar clad hillside above the town and in the thorn scrub lower down there is more resident game. Impala, Eland, Buffalo, Zebra, Baboon , Warthog live in harmony but ever on watch for the leopard and the hyena. Maralal with its distinctive ‘wild west’ atmosphere, ramshackle wooden shops and wide treelined streets, is the venue for the annual international Camel Derby hosted by Yare Safari’s Lodge and Campsite.

Expectations are high as the truck off loads its weary passengers at the lodge’s crowded compound. A temporary city made out of tents looms behind the club house and ‘bandas’ and the delicious smell of barbequed goats’ meat wafts through the air. Trained Camels are available for hire, these barking camels are everywhere being checked out by vets and competitors in advance of races of the next two days. Doctors and Flying Doctor Services insurance is also on offer at very modest charge. Officials are in frenzy keeping the media happy and attending to the constant stream of new arrivals; while old and new friends chat in the bar and restaurant areas. Looming over the crowd with his furrowed brows and scarred face is the massive bulk of the host, Malcolm ‘Le Baron’ Gascoigne. Jokes and anecdotes are flying thick and fast while the bar does a roaring trade. It’s clear this is as much a social event as it is a camel derby.

As darkness falls, the bar and restaurant areas fill with a mix of people from all four corners of the earth. Tall Samburu ‘moran’ dressed in yellow T-shirts and red checked ‘shukas’ with multi-colored head beads and long ochred, braided hair rub shoulders with western travellers in T-shirts and shorts. Mingling with them are Japanese, the Indian sub-continent and the middle east.

The party goes on until late but 10 o’clock the next day the route of the race has been checked out with the billowing flags of many nations and the bunting of the various sponsors, is already lined by Samburu tribes-people from far and wide dressed in their finest attire, the place is a riot of color. Flash guns pop and the media juggle with their cameras and microphones ready for the starter’s gun. This is a chance to view Kenya’s exotic and rare wildlife from the back of your camel. Somali Ostrich, Beisa Oryx, reticulated Giraffe, dainty Gerenuk, Grevy’s Zebra, Elephant, Buffalo and who knoiws maybe a Lion.

First off on their 10km circuit are the amateurs led by their handlers as the struggle viantly to force their reluctant mounts forward, it’s obvious that quite a few competitors in this class have never ridden a camel before let alone attempted to race them. quite a few will return on foot having fallen or been thrown off leaving their handlers to chase thoroughly disgruntled camels through the bush nevertheless there are quite a few commendable efforts, some people manage to make it to the finish still atop the mount.

With the amateurs on their way, it’s now the turn of the professionals and they are on their own, there are no handlers for this class. The start up is a complete debacle, the flag is down but the none of the camels is up. the crowd bellows with laughter but finally after a stick is applied on their tough hind quarters they get up and go. After twenty kilometres they will be back though there will always be one contestant whose mount will protest just a few metres from the finish line, and stubbornly refuse to move. the next day it will be the turn of the professionals to demonstrate their expertise over some 42km or so.

That night at the camp the competitors nurse their raw thighs and bruised buttocks as stories about the days’ adventures go around the camp. On Sunday morning the professionals go out to show us how it is done, with more panache and skill. All of them have spent their lives with camels. There are no major dramas with this class and some three hours later, the winners are back at the finish line leaving the remainder to return some 40 minutes later. .

The prize giving is a much more formal occasion as the derby chairman, (Rtr) ‘Aussie Walker’ gives a talk about the benevolence of the sponsors and the importance of the event to the local economy and it’s exposure to tourism. All this evaporates as the trophies are handed out. Finally, there is the last bash at the bar. At lunch that day ‘vulcanised beef’ is one of apt description, though the lodge staff do redeem themselves later in the day with excellent ‘nyama choma’ for dinner. The next day competitors and spectators begin their journey back to their respective towns, some may decide to take a safari to the Jade Sea of Lake Turkana.

When you finish the race be assured that not only have you conqured the last, frontier but you will also experience and then understand man’s struggle with nature in the North Eastern corner of Kenya.

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